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Islam and Democracy Can Co-Exist, Scholar Says

(Washington, DC--March 18, 2005) A visiting scholar from Morocco says that democracy is not incompatible with Islamist practice and that Islamists must be involved directly in the political reform process.

"Democracy cannot succeed in these countries if Islamists don't participate," Professor Mokhtar Benabdallaoui of Hassan II University in Casablanca told a recent RFE/RL audience. Since Islamists comprise a large part of the population in the countries of the Middle East where a democratic transition is already taking place, it is essential to involve them and introduce changes in a "manner that does not threaten" them, Benabdallaoui said. "If forced to choose between religion and politics, [Islamists] will choose Islam, he noted.

According to Benabdallaoui, the recent election in Iraq is one such example of a positive step towards securing the involvement of all sectors within society. "It was not merely that the Islamic political party won the national parliamentary election that was significant, but that the US accepted the results as legitimate," Benabdallaoui said. He hopes that the elections in Iraq will serve as a model to other nations, such as Iran, as a demonstration that Islam and democracy can "co-exist."

Historically, Benabdallaoui said, Muslims have wanted an Islamic nation without borders or nationality, where citizenship was based on religion. These factions refused to recognize elections as legitimate; they looked to the Koran to decide conflicts, including political conflicts, Benabdallaoui said, and "the interpretation of the Koran differed depending on who looked to it for answers."

Benabdallaoui said that he has noticed that, in general, Islamists have become much more receptive to democratization, as in Morocco. There are still some small Islamic groups who uphold the historical principles, Benabdallaoui noted, but "they have almost no affect." The larger Islamic groups now accept the role of nation-states, that contested elections are a legitimate means of gaining power, and have embraced the principle of equality regardless of religion. Most recently, Benabdallaoui said, "little by little, groups that once opposed democracy are now defenders of democracy."

Even with the growing acceptance of democratization, however, politicians in these nations remain divided over the issue of what to do with the small political groups that still uphold orthodox Islamic principles. Some believe that it is necessary to abolish them altogether since "the porcupine can never have soft skin," Benabdallaoui said, while others, such as members of Turkey's Justice and Development Party, favor the idea of incorporation because strict security measures may work in the short term, but will not suffice to ensure long term stability.

Prof. Benabdallaoui was in the United States to participate in a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), administered by the Delphi International Program of World Learning. To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at